It was four-against-one when “The Greatest” met the soon-to-be greatest rock band of all time, but Muhammad Ali had no trouble knocking out all of The Beatles with a single swing when they met at a Miami gym on Feb. 18, 1964.
Ali, whose Friday death at the age of 74 is being mourned around the world, was in Miami for a career-changing fight. Specifically, his heavyweight boxing title fight with then-champion Sonny Liston, who he beat in a major upset. The Beatles were in Miami for a few days of sun and fun after filming their second appearance on TV’s “The Ed Sullivan Show” at Miami’s Deauville Hotel.
Ali, who earlier in his career had trained in Ramona with San Diego boxing legend Archie Moore, was then still known as Cassius Clay. By all accounts, he had no idea who The Beatles were. But he welcomed the opportunity for some extra publicity with the young English band, which was already starting to irrevocably change popular music and culture.
So, he agreed to pose for some photos with George Harrison, John Lennon, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr.
For the record, since Ali was a 7-to1 underdog, The Beatles had hoped to pose for shots with Liston, but he emphatically refused, saying: “Are these (expletives) what all the people are screaming about? My dog plays drums better than that kid with the big nose.”
Fortunately, the far more amenable Ali – who won a gold medal in boxing in the 1960 Olympics – was quickly enlisted instead.
Although The Beatles fumed because the soon-to-be-new champ was late and kept them waiting, when he arrived he quickly broke the ice with his opening line, which has since been reported as either: “Hey, Beatles, let’s go make some money!”; or the equally memorable: “Hello there, Beatles! We oughta do some roadshows together. We’ll get rich!”
With photographers gathered around the boxing ring and all four band members lined up in it, Ali pretended to punch Harrison, who was closest to him. All four Beatles then fell down like dominoes, while Ali triumphantly stood above them.
At one point, Ali use one of his favorite lines at the time, telling the four English musicians: “You ain’t as dumb as you look!”
The ever-snappy Lennon shot back: “No. But you are!”
After a moment of uncomfortable silence, Ali began to chuckle. So did the band.
At one point, according to a UPI reporter covering the event, Ali improvised a verse: “When Liston reads about The Beatles visiting me / He’ll get so mad, I’ll knock him out in three!” (In actuality, it took six rounds for Ali to defeat Liston, who failed to appear for the seventh round,)
“It was a big publicity thing,” Harrison recalled in The Beatles “Anthology” film documentary and book. “It was all part of being a Beatle, really; just getting lugged around and thrust into rooms full of press men taking pictures and asking questions. Muhammad Ali was quite cute.”
Starr also discussed The Beatles’ photo op with Ali in “Anthology,” albeit with his tongue firmly in his cheek.
“I taught (Ali) everything he knew!” Starr said, before growing more – and less – serious. “That was a thrill, of course, and I was putting my money on Liston, so I really knew what was happening!”
In the wake of Ali’s death, McCartney paid tribute to the iconic boxer on his website, writing: “I loved that man. He was great from the first day we met him in Miami, and on the numerous occasions when I ran into him over the years. Besides being the greatest boxer, he was a beautiful, gentle man with a great sense of humor who would often pull a pack of cards out of his pocket, no matter how posh the occasion, and do a card trick for you.
“The world has lost a truly great man.”
Starr, in turn, tweeted: “God bless Muhammad Ali peace and love to all his family.”